Let Thy Food Be Thy Medicine: Five Foods to Boost Mental Health
Everyone knows the saying “you are what you eat”. While obviously, you won’t become a glorious piece of chocolate cake when you dig into your favorite luscious desert, healthy foods can help you maintain or improve your mental health. In fact, recent research has found that diets high in vegetables, fruits, beans, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and fish were linked to better mental health, whereas diets high in saturated fat, processed food, and refined carbohydrates were correlated with increased levels of anxiety and depression. A 2019 study from the Loma Linda University Adventist Health Sciences Center even found that regardless of age, gender, marital status, education, and income level, consuming large amounts of unhealthy food, such as sugar, fried foods, and processed grains, were linked to moderate or severe psychological distress.
The link between eating junk food and poor mental health is well-established. The good news is that the opposite is also true. For those without mental health issues, this might mean helping you to better cope with stressful situations and maintain good mental health. Those with ADHD, depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues might also experience symptom improvement with healthy diet changes. The following are five foods that can positively impact your mental health.
Research from Harvard Medical School recently found that avocados can be a key tool in treating anxiety. While eating avocado toast every day at breakfast won’t cure your anxiety, the B vitamins in the fruit aid in the release of dopamine and serotonin. These two neurotransmitters help us to feel happy and calm and are often the target of antianxiety and antidepression medications.
Blueberries are one of the summer’s treasures and have powerful positive effects on the brain. A 2016 study from the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology found that eating blueberries impacts genetic and biochemical factors linked to suicidal ideation and depression in those with post-traumatic stress disorder. While previous research indicated that eating blueberries can increase serotonin levels in the brain, the 2016 study suggested that these tiny fruits can even impact the brain at the gene-level, decreasing SKA2 levels. SKA2 is often found to be abnormally low in people who have died by suicide.
Leafy green vegetables, such as spinach and kale, contain high amounts of folate. This B vitamin is essential for mental health, with higher levels of folate being associated with lower risks of depression.
If you struggle with eating kale or spinach, try blending them with some of your favorite fruits in a green smoothie. The fruits will mask the flavor of the greens and as an added bonus, adding blueberries or strawberries can give you additional mental health-boosting benefits!
Oily fish, such as salmon, sardines, anchovies, trout, and mackerel, have high levels of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s can reduce inflammation and boost heart health. They also play a key role in reducing depression and stabilizing moods. Those with ADHD or depression might see additional improvements above what they see with medications when Omega-3s are consumed.
If you are a vegetarian, vegan, or you just don’t prefer eating fish, you can also find Omega-3s in flax seeds, walnuts, soybeans, seaweed, hemp seeds, kidney beans, chia seeds, and dark leafy vegetables.
Whole grains include brown rice, quinoa, steel cut oats, bulgur, buckwheat, millet, farro, and corn. Unlike refined white flour, whole grains are complex carbohydrates that allow for a slower release of glucose. This helps to limit blood sugar spikes that can cause the same effects on the brain that addictive drugs can. These can include rapid changes in energy level, low moods, depression, and anxiety. In contrast, whole grains can lead to a more steady blood pressure and stable moods.
Many whole grains are also rich in tryptophan, which are needed to produce serotonin and melatonin. When your body produces healthy amounts of serotonin, you feel happier and more calm. Higher levels of melatonin lead to improved sleep and healthy sleep patterns, improving mental wellbeing.
While these five foods offer significant mental and physical health benefits, eating an abundance of brown rice and guacamole is likely not enough to cure a significant mental illness and they are not a substitute for appropriate mental health treatment. However, incorporating these and other brain-boosting healthy foods in your diet as part of a comprehensive treatment plan can be an important step in improving your mental health and reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression.